Industrial poultry giant Tyson Foods had its sights set on the rural community of Payneville, Kentucky, for a massive chicken factory. But thanks to Sierra Club organizing efforts and the determined opposition of local residents--several of them pictured above--Tyson's already-under-construction factory in the village will not be completed or put into operation.
Volunteer activist Kathy Carden, pictured above holding cake, lives next door to a chicken factory in the nearby town of Little Bend. She suffers from a lung disease, histoplasmosis, that is exacerbated--if not caused--by the chicken waste which used to be spread on fields near her house, carried in by uncovered trucks. She reached out to the Sierra Club for help several years ago and the Club helped convince the factory operator to clean up his act. It was Carden who again contacted the Club to help out in the Payneville campaign.
Tyson had contracted with a Payneville man to build three chicken houses less than 75 feet from the nearest home and 1,500 feet from the local elementary school. But these aren't the kind of chicken houses you probably have in mind. The "houses" Tyson was building in Payneville would each accommodate more than 32,000 birds, for a total of nearly 100,000 chickens. An aerial view of a chicken factory in western Kentucky appears below, showing the scale of these houses.
Having worked successfuly with the Sierra Club before, Carden asked for help organizing a campaign to fight the planned Payneville facility. Local residents' main concern was the health threat to the elementary school children, and the school superintendent contacted Tyson to tell them there would likely be legal action if the houses were built and put into operation. The interior of a typical chicken factory is pictured below.
Carden got concerned Meade County residents together, arranged community meetings and appearances at the county court, and made countless calls to agencies, legislators, and county officials. Many of the core group of approximately 50 local activists visited county offices, called the Tyson plant at nearby Corydon, Indiana, and lobbied Tyson executives in Arkansas over the phone.
Western Kentucky Sierra Club organizer Aloma Dew, who worked closely with the Meade County activists, spoke with one of Tyson's attorneys, who told her the company would no longer work with or talk with the Sierra Club. "But our growing clout in Kentucky helped turn things around," she says, "and certainly the gravitas of the school superintendent was a major factor." Dew is pictured below with husband and fellow Club activist Lee, in front of an illegally dumped mountain of chicken feces and ground-up carcasses not far from their home in Owensboro.
Tyson has recently been targeting western Kentucky for its operations, contracting local "growers" to build and manage their mega-coops. The Sierra Club has fought back in the courtroom, the media, and in rural communities, organizing local opposition to these massive operations that foul the air and water--and frequently poison community relations as well, pitting neighbor against neighbor when the stink and fecal dust from the operations sicken nearby residents, drive them indoors, and depress property values. The proliferation of industrial-scale chicken factories in western Kentucky is illustrated in the photo below.
The Club released a study this September showing that ammonia emissions from confined chicken operations in western Kentucky are high enough to pose a serious threat to public health. In 2005 Tyson settled a lawsuit by the Sierra Club when it agreed to spend a half a million dollars to study and report on pollution from its chicken operations and mitigate ammonia emissions that have been plaguing rural residents for years. This settlement came on the heels of a landmark 2004 court decision, when a federal judge in Kentucky ruled that Tyson was responsible for the consequences of its pollution.
In light of this recent history and fierce local opposition, Tyson bowed to the public will in Payneville and withdrew its planned factory there. "This is an example of what can be done when people organize and work together," says Dew. "It is also an example of why more openness and disclosure are necessary when confined animal operations are being planned. If the citizens and the schools had known earlier, a lot of anguish and expense could have been spared--the grower had already secured a loan and begun construction of the houses." Tyson has agreed on a financial settlement with the grower.
Dew adds that the perception of the Sierra Club in rural Kentucky has changed markedly in recent years. "I'm working with several coal miners in [western Kentucky's] Webster County, and their leader, Troy Cowan, is constantly saying, 'Can you believe we are working together?' We are, and it is a good relationship."
Pictured at top of article, after Tyson announced it was pulling the plug on its Payneville factory, are: (front row) Mary Ruth Stephenson, Marilyn McGlinn, Carden, and Sharon Hughes; (back row) David Hughes, David Chism, and Albert Chism.
Read more about factory farms, and what the Sierra Club is doing to promote safe and healthy communities.
Photos used with permission.